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Study: Learning New Skills Keeps Aging Mind Sharp

  • Jessica Berman

A new study shows that elderly adults who challenge their minds with increasingly difficult tasks maintain cognitive functioning better than those who do less demanding activities.

To keep our brains sharp as we age, we are often told to keep our minds active; “use it or lose it.” There actually is little scientific evidence to support that, however, according to psychologist Denise Park of the University of Texas at Dallas.

“Partially because it is very, very hard to do experiments with humans, where you randomly assign them to conditions where, say, you retire young, you do not retire; you do interesting things, you do boring things,” said Park.

So Park, head of the university’s Center for Vital Longevity, designed a study in which she and her colleagues randomly assigned 221 healthy aging and elderly adults to one of three groups.

“We asked people to learn new things, like quilting or photography. We asked other people to just do fun things like being in a social group. And then we asked other people to do things at home that seemingly would help their cognition or their mental function but were not likely to have a very large effect,” she said.

The participants engaged in their assigned activity for 15 hours per week over the course of three months.

At the end of that time, researchers found that the adults who learned new skills, such as digital photography or quilting or both, showed the greatest improvements on memory tests.

No improvements were seen in the scores of those in the social group that did activities together like go on field trips, nor among the third group that listened to classical music or did crossword puzzles.

Park believes the key to improved memory in the active learning group is that the participants constantly were challenged to acquire new skills, unlike those in the other two groups, who engaged in what she calls receptive activities.

While not a cure for age-related mental decline, Park thinks being actively engaged slows it down.

“So, I am not as interested in improving the function of people as they age in their later years. I am more interested in showing ultimately over time that by these novel experiences that involve a lot of mental operations that we can slow the rate at which people cognitively age,” she said.

Park said the latest data show the improvements were maintained for at least a year, and she and her colleagues plan longer term follow ups with the participants. She also is curious to learn whether engaging in demanding mental activities delays the onset of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

An article on the benefit of learning new skills for the elderly is published in the journal Psychological Science.